Community: For Unity or Mutiny?

There are some identities we may identify with, such as race, religion, gender, political group, geographic location (various granularities: street, neighborhood, city, state, region, country), ethnicity, profession, rank, nature of work, hobbies, skills, etc. (it is bad writing to use etc. but here we truly mean it because if we keep listing, then that is all this article will have!). It is impossible to find another person with exactly your set of identities. But still we try and create a “community’’ of people that are “similar’’ in many ways. I cringe whenever someone uses the word “community’’ and work toward the betterment of their community.

On one hand, it is extremely useful from a personal development standpoint to be community-focussed rather than individual-focused and also satisfies some basic psychological needs that also have significant evolutionary underpinnings. The fact that humans survived harsh wild conditions with much more powerful predator animals is mainly due to our being a social animal. We identify well with a society. It also helps us think of the greater good and create a positive impact on society. Do not get me wrong, it is extremely useful to have a sense of belonging and a sense of community. It is a huge improvement to focusing on the individual.

On the other hand, identifying with a community, however large or small, frequently leads us to feel animosity toward those not in the community. We tend to stereotype those not in our community and many times show no compassion toward them. For example, some theoretical physicists look down upon literally everyone who is not doing theoretical physics (if this is not familiar, try and watch my favorite show Big Bang Theory). We can easily laugh at that but if you identify yourself belonging to a religious community, an ethnic community, a national community, or a music genre community, do you find yourself having no regard for some people not in your community? This is why I cringe when “community’’ based work is glorified.

What is needed is to have a sense of community while at the same time have compassion towards those not in the community. Here are a three strategies for that:

Once you start removing borders and expand your community, it will eventually extend to all humans. But wait, then you might ask why just human, okay let us extend to all creatures. Well, why not all living things? And how about non-living things? You can go on and on, and eventually realize the oneness talked about in Zen. Essentially, nothing is worthless as everything has a purpose. Further, everything is one, part of a larger conciousness, this non-duality is a major Zen principle.

You may have heard the saying: mind is like a parachute, it works best when open. Not being open-minded is identifying with a community but not anyone outside it. However, to be open-minded, one approach would be to understand where people not in your community are coming from (not literally, but figuratively). You can read up, listen or talk to people not in your community to find out what their experiences are, what motivates them, and what their beliefs are (you may have assumed something, but could be surprised now). But never try to argue with them or correct them. Another approach would be to list all the things you identify with and see how many of your close friends have exactly that same identity. You have two options, expand your list or expand your friends circle, and then appreciate the differences.

If you can easily identify your comfort zone and community, try to go outside it. For example: if you eat meat try living the life of a vegan for a few days; try practicing another religion and understand their beliefs for a year or so; if you work at a university try taking up a job in the industry; if you are not much into artsy stuff try taking up art as a hobby; or if you listen only to hip-hop immerse yourselves in classical music. These are just a few examples. The idea is to make a list of things you disrespect, look down upon, or doing it would make you a loser. Then go ahead and do it. Essentially go outside your comfort zone.

In summary, it would be good to try all three, because different things work well for different situations. In particular, you cannot do (3) in case of race and gender as it is not possible to go outside your group. However, it would be much easier to do (2) by including people of different groups in your friends circle or companions at work. There is too much of us-versus-them in our world. What we need today is unity across communities.



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